1.1 Introduction

Water is life. This colourless, odourless and tasteless liquid is essential for all forms of growth and development - human, animal and plant. Water is a fundamental basic need for sustaining human economic activities. Not only does water support a wide range of activities, it also plays a central symbolic role in rituals throughout the world and is considered a divine gift by many religions.

Providing water in the desired quantity and quality and at the right time and place, has been a constant endeavour of all civilizations. No other natural resource has had such an overwhelming influence on human history. As the human population increases and people express their desire for a better standard of living, and as economic activities continue to expand in scale and diversity the demands on fresh water resources will continue to grow.

Water is a renewable resource, its availability in space (at a specific location) and time (at different periods of the year) is limited, being largely determined by climatic, geographical and physical conditions, by affordable technological solutions which permit its exploitation, and by the efficiency with which water is conserved and used.

Much of the world’s fresh water is consumed by the agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors. Increasing water demands and the inadequacy of these sectors to effectively manage this resource, has meant that crisis situations have arisen in many parts of the world over the availability of adequate, quality water.



Increasing knowledge of the ecological processes which constitute the global hydrological cycle has helped society to better understand the atmospheric and terrestrial movements of water, enabling people to improve and regulate its availability. Such initiatives were initially guided by minor technical interventions, such as small-scale diversions, canals and shallow wells. In the past century, however, the level of technical interventions has greatly expanded, the result being that people are now capable of storing large volumes of water, of moving them over distances of hundreds of kilometers, and of using this resource several times before it is released back into the natural hydro-logical cycle. All of these features have resulted in a dramatic increase in the global consumption of fresh water over the past few centuries.

The limits of sustainable use in each climatic region are determined by local climate, hydrological and hydro geological conditions. In many parts of the world, the amount of water being consumed has exceeded the annual level of renewal, creating a non-sustainable situation. Many regions with scanty rainfall, particularly the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are already well advanced on the path to non-sustainable use of water resources. In other areas, particularly in industrialized countries, levels of utilization have already been so high that most possibilities to divert water away from the natural flow into storage facilities have been exhausted.



The situation regarding the status of drinking water supplies in particular, has caused a great deal of concern. The United Nations, for example, declared the 1980s as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. Other international declarations have also clearly recognized that access to water is a fundamental right of people.

Fresh water lakes and rivers, which are the main sources of water consumed by people, contain an average of 90,000 cu. km. of water, or just 0.26 per cent of total global fresh water reserves. This tiny fraction is distributed in a very uneven manner on Earth, creating a wide range of environments, from arid regions and deserts to humid areas which experience regular flooding, In many parts of the world, the rainfall pattern is highly skewed and is characterized by small periods of intense precipitation followed by long, dry periods. Great disparities may even be seen on the same continent: about 20 per cent of the total global run-off flows in the Amazon River in South America, while the hearby Atacama Desert has consistently received no annual rainfall.

Such variations become very important as human activities diversify geographically and in scale. In many water scarce parts of the world, human engineering initiatives have been geared towards balancing this spatial inequity. In south-western USA, for example, engineering interventions in the form of extensive dams have already exhausted most possibilities for enhancing fresh water availability. In many other parts of the world, future options are becoming extremely complex and uncertain as the levels of total fresh water consumption approach the limits imposed by the annual renewal of fresh water resources.

Advances in climatology and hydrology have contributed to improved, quantitative estimations of the processes which make up the global hydrological cycle. Though this knowledge has resulted in increased availability of water in some situations, an almost exponential growth in the level of utilization of this resource has balanced off the advantages so created. In this way, in spite of advances made on the scientific front, human survival and well-being today are probably no less dependent on fresh water availability than in the early years of human civilization. Not with standing some impressive records in activities related to the UN Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade, the provision of water at affordable cost and of acceptable quality is emerging as a major environmental challenge. In particular, the close dependence of future food security on the availability of irrigation water, as well as growing awareness of water resources for conservation purposes has created widespread concern


Emerging situations

The emerging situation is one of water shortages, whether as a result of over-exploitation for limited, localized purposes, or because of inadequate and ill-informed management strategies. Past experience such as the situations in the Aral Sea or the Rhine basin, has established that water resources the world over are in urgent need of attention. Warning signals are there for all to see. About one-third of the world’s population lives in countries experiencing moderate to high water stress. Recently, the Committee on Natural Resources of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations "noted with alarm that some 80 countries, comprising 40 per cent of the world’s population, are already suffering from serious water shortages and that, in many cases, the scarcity of water resources has become the limiting factor to economic and social development". The reasons given for this were greater demands on fresh water resources by burgeoning human populations, diminishing quality of water resources because of pollution, and the additional requirements of servicing spiralling industrial and agricultural growth.

In 1950, less than 100 cities had a population greater than one million. By 2025, it is expected that about 650 cities will be in this situation. As urban populations grow, there will be greater demands for water, which may be supplied at the cost of irrigation needs, creating inter-sectoral conflicts. In addition, pollution caused by in-creased human densities and irresponsible disposal of industrial wastes, has already started to reduce the limits of use-able water resources.

We are facing a global fresh water crisis with many regions where human demand is outstripping local water supplies. There is, therefore, an immediate need to develop a better understanding of, and management system for fresh water resources to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s water resources.

There is distinction between ‘water scarcity’, ‘water shortage’ and ‘water stress’. Water scarcity is a relative concept intended to convey the imbalance between supply and demand under the prevailing legal, institutional, regulatory and, where applicable, price arrangements. Water shortage is an absolute concept indicating low levels of water supply relative to minimum levels necessary for basic needs. Water stress signifies acute water shortages for prolonged periods.

In this respect, it is important to examine whether the emerging water scarcity in various parts of the world is absolute, needing drastic reductions in demand, or can be adequately addressed through new and holistic management strategies and restrained consumption patterns. The need, for a totally new perspective and the manner in which people use fresh water has been felt and the existing perceptions of engineers regarding water supplies has been questioned.

It has been stressed by many workers that we need to adopt a systems approach to water management. Along with the various ecological linkages governing the flow of fresh water in the hydrological cycle, the need to understand the use of water in its many diverse roles and its economic implications is also being recognized, in particular in Delhi (1990) and Dublin (1992) (Box 1). The Earth Summit, Agenda 21, specifically calls for local and national level actions (Box 2).



In a country where the first measurement of rainfall was made by Kautilya as early as AD 1200, it is surprising that estimates of the total availability of water in India are only quite recent. The earliest estimated total average annual run-off of all river systems in India is 1,674 billion cubic metres (BCM).

The National Water Policy estimates that total precipitation in India is around 400 million hectare metres, while surface water availability is 178 million hectare metres, of which 50 per cent can be put to benefi-cial use. In addition, ground water potential is about 42 million hectare metres. The first estimates of ground water resources on a scientific basis was made in 1979 by the Central Ground Water Board. Recent estimates based on a state-wise assessment have put the annual replenishable ground water resources of the country at 453 BCM. With a provision of 15 per cent, 69.8 BCM for drinking, industrial and it other uses, the utilizable ground water resources for irrigation is computed as 383 BCM.

GOI puts the amount of available aggregate annual utilizable water in India, surface and ground, at about 1,100 BCM. Population growth is expected to result in a decline in the per capita availability of fresh water. In 1947, this was measured at 5,150m3. By the year 2000, it is likely to be 2,200m3.

Such aggregate figures, however, are quite misleading, since there is considerable spatial and temporal variation in rainfall. Some areas receive slight rainfall, whereas others experience monsoon conditions which often result in flooding, loss of life and increased poverty. To better understand such variations and their consequences on people’s lives, it is necessary to examine specific situations at the village or community levels under different ecological situations.

Attention must, however, also be given to fast-growing urban centres, where water requirements are expected to double from 25 BCM in 1990 to 52 BCM in 2025. The situation concerning industrial supplies is even more difficult to analyse. It has been indicated by many workers that industrial water demand would increase from 34 BCM in 1990 to 191 BCM by the year 2025. Agriculture, the largest consumer of water resources in India, will probably require 770 BCM by the year 2025 to support food demand. The total estimated demand of 1013 BCM by the year 2025 would be close to the current available annual utilizable water resource of India.

With predicted demands such as these, the supply of rural drinking water and requirements for ecosystems conservation are sure to face an uncertain future unless anticipatory policy measures are taken. It is evident that the politically and economically powerful urban-industrial sectors would obtain the water resources they need by organizing long distance transfers from - surrounding rural areas or even by inter basin transfers. In such a scenario, alternative solutions of conservation and sustainable management of fresh water resources will find little support (Postel, 1996). In view of this, much of the debate in this report will focus on the requirements of rural drinking water and ecosystem conservation while at the same time suggesting alternative approaches for meeting urban demands.

In some situations, the intensification of irrigation, supported by electric pumps, has meant that uptake of ground water has often crossed the limit imposed by natural levels of renewal. In the case of Junagadh district, Gujarat, ground water overdraft is now a common and growing problem throughout the state.

Harvesting rainwater, which is a traditional practice in the Indian lifestyle, has received some active promotion from the Government of India. In the case of an arid region. Conservation of surface run-off in Rajasthan was practised through the system of community water tanks. A comprehensive description of traditional water harvesting systems and recommendations for action has recently been provided.

Such situations should be compared with conditions in uplands and mountains where there is substantial precipitation. Here, basic water needs have been traditionally satisfied through collection from natural springs. Thus, while there is no significant competition for water, increased population size, contamination of water sources and deforestation have led to environmental degradation and increased effort on the part of women and girls to carry water up the mountains.

Rainwater harvesting has been developed in arid or semi-arid regions. As has been described, rainwater and dew have been successfully used as a source of water, even in the moist eastern Indian state of Assam and provides an account of locally developed water harvesting systems and irrigation practices in diverse agro-climatic conditions in India. These technologies have generally supported human well-being and agricultural growth within the limits of sustainability.

Indigenous systems of water harvesting, storage and distribution, which evolved with built-in conditions for sustainability, have system-atically been replaced throughout the country, especially where population density has increased and there is a higher intensity of agriculture. At the same time, however, people are, at least in some places, responding to the issue of water resource degradation. Thus, the water supply scenario is a dynamic one, caused by both human-induced scarcity and the human initiatives taken to avoid the problem. This is a very positive signal for India and the success of rural water supply projects can become more successful only with strong local participation in decision-making and operation.

During the 1970s, there was a marked departure from sustainable utilization of water resources. Food scarcities of the 1960s encouraged government policies towards increased irrigation. In this way, the users of drinking water and irrigation, which had until then been a singular entity, started to be separated. This shift affected the management of common water resources in basic ways. One of the most visible changes was the manner in which upper catchments were managed, leading to a degradation of water resources in tanks, lakes and rivers. It also led to ground water being extracted from greater depths, making the shallow hand-dug wells, which until then had provided drinking water, redundant. The situation has been described as human induced water scarcity, normally mistaken as being the result of natural drought. What made the situation even worse was increased pollution of both surface and ground water resources. In this perspective, pre-emotive measures in terms of new regulatory and policy instruments are adopted, the water situation in India is certain to become chaotic.

Box 1: Delhi and Dublin Principles

Delhi "Some for all rather than more for some." Guiding principles:

Dublin: Emphasis on sustainability and the need to consider water as an economic good. Guiding principles:

Source: Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation for the 1990s, Delhi, and International Conference on Water and the Environment, Dublin, 1992.

Box 2: Earth Summit, Agenda 21

Source: United Nations (1992), p. 168.

Box 3: Dying Wisdom: Traditional water harvesting systems, water rights and the role of communities

Traditional water harvesting techniques have been severely eroded. Modern attempts to restore them must reckon with the causes of their decline. Modern water technologies have often been imported from the West without due regard to local specificities. Some conclusions and recommendations:

Source: Agarwal and Narain (1997)

Box 4: National Water Policy (1987)

Source: Government of India (1987).

Box 5: Technology Mission: Some approaches for the conservation of water and recharging of ground water aquifers

Source: Government of India (1987a)

Box 6: Key components of the Ground Water Model Bill

Source: Government of India (1996)


The changing socio-economic situation in India is leading towards higher levels of ground water exploitation. With the increasing avail-ability of more sophisticated drilling and pumping technology, the search for ground water is bound to increase. The results of excessive ground water use is already showing-small streams, are drying up due to insufficient catchments even during the monsoon season, and in both rural and urban areas people are drilling deeper and deeper borewells. In other situations, a significant amount of rain might fall, but it is not possible to store it for domestic needs. In the hills, deforestation and reduced ground cover results in very little rainwater percolating into the soil to feed the springs. Soil erosion further reduces the capacity of the ground to retain water. Cheerapunji in eastern India, for example, may receive 10.5m of rainfall in the short monsoon period, but it suffers from water scarcity.

India is heavily dependent on ground water sources. It is estimate that this source provides about 80 to 90 per cent of domestic water supply in rural areas, 50 per cent of the urban and industrial demand and 50 per cent of the irrigated area through over 17 million energized wells. In drought years, ground water represents the primary reliable source for irrigation. How ever, domestic water needs account for only about 5 per cent of the total water extracted from the ground.

A dramatic increase in ground water extraction took place in India from 1951 to 1990. The number of dug wells increased from 3.86 million to 9.49 million, shallow tubewells from 3,000 to 4.75 million, and public tubewells from 2,400 to 63,600. The number of electric an diesel pumps also increased during this period, from 21,000 to 8.22 million and from 65, 700 to 4.36 million, respectively, electric pumps becoming more common as a result of rural electrification. In gross terms, however, the current level of ground water use is 32 per cent, suggesting that there is still vast potential for its further development, but there are significant variations with a number of blocks in the country classified as ‘dark areas’ or ‘over-exploited’-more than 85 and 100 per cent of ground water development, respectively.

With the heavy dependence of the country on ground water, the government’s strategy has been based on using the dynamic component of ground water (i.e. the amount available in the zone of water-level fluctuation), and temporary use of the static component (i.e. the amount available in the permeable portion of the aquifer) to cope with drought situations’. The National Water Policy sets out the framework for the implementation of this strategy (Box 4). Current legislation (common law) assigns property rights of surface (natural) water resources to the state, while rights to the extraction of ground water, which is the major source of drinking water in India, rest with those individuals who own the land above the aquifer. There is no limit on the quantity of ground water that a landowner can extract.

The water supply and sanitation sector, particularly in rural areas, has been given priority from the inception of the five year planning process in India. In total, during the five year planning periods 1951-56 to 1992-97 Rs.336 billion or 3.3 per cent of the total government budget has been allocated to this sector, of which 60 per cent (Rs.202 billion) was for rural areas. Government investment in rural water supplies and sanitation was Rs.143 billion up to 1996. From ‘1991 to 1995’, total external support to the water supply and sanitation sector amounted to US$ 339 million or US $56.5 million per year which represents 2 per cent of total external disbursements in India. But it is also noted that the utilization rate of both multilateral and bilateral assistance in India is low; for example in 1992-1993 it was only 10 per cent of commitments. Estimates of private investments are not available, but they are likely to far exceed that of the government if irrigation and domestic expenditures in water extractions are included.

According to the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM) a total of 520 million people have been provided access to public water supply since the launch of the first national water supply programme in 1954. During the period 1954-1955 to 1994-1995 it is estimated that 478 million rural people were covered with water supply. By 1994, 95 per cent of the rural population had access to a ‘safe’ source of water, with 52 per cent fully covered with 40 litres per capita per da (lpcd) or more, and 48 per cent partially covered with 10 to 40 lpcd. Only about 5 per cent of the rural population were without access to safe water.

In terms of physical infrastructure, more than two million handpumps have been installed on drilled tube and borewells; 116,000 mini and regional piped schemes have been constructed supplying 1 million standposts and 4.3 million houses connections. Moreover, handpumps account for 95 per cent of the total number of publicly funded rural water supply schemes, serving almost 395 million people or 75 per cent of the rural population.

A 1994 Government of India survey examined the status of handpumps. It found that many schemes required repair (more than 33 per cent), or rehabilitation (22 per cent), or were completely defunct (12 per cent). In the case of piped water supply the situation v less serious with about 26 per cent requiring repair or rehabilitation Eighteen per cent of all standposts were found to be without taps’.

The RGNDWM Validation Survey has also reported significant problems with water quality. Approximately 82,000 habitations or about 44 million people are suffering from water quality problems a result of excessive quantities of fluoride, iron, nitrate and arsenic or excessive salinity. In 13 States, drinking water sources are contaminated with excessive fluoride affecting thousands of childrens, with dental and skeletal fluorosis. Excess nitrate in drinking water sources which causes ‘blue baby syndrome’ in children has been observed in a number of states. The Ground Water Sub-group of the Water Resource Management Sector Study by the World Bank and Government of India reports that arsenic is a recognized problem in West Bengal (1,000 habitations or an approximate population of 500,000); fluoride levels are considered high in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh (28,000 habitations or an approximate population of 14 million); high iron levels have been found in the north-east and eastern parts of the country (58,000 habitations or an approximate population of 29 million); and high salinity is prevalent in Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu".

With an area of 3,268,100 km2, India has 33 meteorological sub-divisions. Almost one-third of the country-99 districts in 13 states, covering 108 million hectares have been classified as drought-prone. As of March 1994, out of the 7024 Blocks, Mandals, Talukas and watersheds in the country, 537 Blocks and Mandals (102 Mandals in Andhra Pradesh,32 in Haryana,9 in Karnataka,3 in Madhya Pradesh, 73 in Punjab, 68 in Rajasthan,97 in Tamil Nadu,65 in Uttar Pradesh,2 in West Bengal),45 Talukas in Gujarat, and 35 watersheds in Maharashtra were classified as ‘dark’ or critical where the projected net extraction in five years would be in excess of 85 per cent of the ground water resources utilizable for irrigation. Another 600 Blocks, Mandals, Talukas and watersheds are classified as ‘grey’ or ‘semi-critical’ with projected extractions in the 65-85 per cent range.

In response to the emerging problems of ground water, the RGNDWM has as far back as 1987 identified strategies for the short and long-term for meeting drinking water needs and micro-watershed management such as the conservation of water and recharging of ground water aquifers (Box 5), and a Model Bill has been proposed by the Central Government (Box 6).

In 1992, the Constitution Act (73rd Amendment) gave responsibility for drinking water and sanitation to the Panchayati Raj Institutions. The underlying rationale is that the public health engineering departments and Water Boards are centralized, monopolistic, overstaffed, and lacked accountability to users. The Gram Panchayats as the local-level tier are now expected to be responsible for choice of technology, recovering costs and operations, and maintenance of rural water supply and sanitation. The assets would be owned by the community. This process is, however, in a very early stage in most states, but Gram Panchayat are now almost entirely implementing development programmes that are handed down to them by the state and central governments.

However, because the governments continue to control the grants to the Panchayats, they continue to exercise control on the day-to-day functioning of the panchayats, and the state governments still continue to act as the providers of minimum coverage of free water supply in rural areas.

The broad picture of the demand and availability of fresh water has typically suggested certain generalized solutions such as the need for resource management rather than controlled resource extraction and improved environmental management in critical zones. Alternative mechanisms for water allocation in such a complex situation have been studied by many. Specific solutions have pointed to the promotion of water markets, reforming the tariff structure of electricity, prohibiting certain crops in water scarcity areas, creating legal and institutional frameworks, and re-orienting investments in the sector.

The applicability of some suggested changes has often not taken into account the regional and ecological differences that prevail in the nature and assessment of the fresh water situation, including social and cultural factors. Policies and plans developed at the national level, and calculations of per capita fresh water needs based on national data have little meaning in a country of this size. The water issues in India must be analysed in a dynamic context-both over time and for specific locations.


Modified from "Fresh Water for India's Children and Nature", by Ashok Nigam, Biksham Gujja, Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Rupert Talbot. A combined publication of UNICEF and WWF in April 1998. (Published with the permission of the authors).

To Top